August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
The tragedy that trapped and killed 146 employees started small but made a big mark in history
Most fires start small; few are chosen to make an impact on history. The tragic Triangle Waist Company fire, which consumed 146 lives, most of them young girls, on March 25, 1911, was one of the latter. The fire, which swept the top three floors of the ten-story Asch building—now the Brown building of New York University—one block east of Washington Square on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in New York City, acted as a catalyst on social reform. The Triangle tragedy brought together the Progressive reformer, the social worker, the urban trade unions, and Tammany behind a demand for factory legislation, thereby giving birth to a voting complex that ultimately helped to shape the New Deal.
At the start the fire seemed harmless. Not long before, Max Blanck, one of the partners who owned the Triangle Waist Company, had put out a small blaze in the shop with his coat. The company was one of the largest of its kind, employing 1,000 workers, although only a little over half that number were at work on that fateful Saturday afternoon. The employees were working overtime to fill back orders caused by a strike which had centered around the Triangle Company a short time previous. The rest of the building was nearly empty, all the other firms having closed down at three o’clock.
The bell rang “power-off” at 4:30 P.M. The whirring sewing machines, six ranks with twenty machines in each, fell silent. Most of the girls, clutching their pay envelopes, left the tables immediately for the dressing rooms and washrooms. The windows facing south and east were open to catch the breezes of spring, and the girls were eager to get out to enjoy the last hour or so of a fine clay.
Chattering gaily in several languages they left the cluttered sewing room. They couldn’t move as fast as they would have liked. The tables were so close together that chairs touched back to back in between the rows. The Asch building was typical of the 790 tower loft buildings erected in New York City during the first decade of the century; plenty of air space above the workers’ heads but very little elbow room on the floor. New York factory laws specified 250 cubic feet of air for each worker but neglected to state the space the air must occupy. The gain in workers per floor space to be made by moving from a tenement factory with its eight-foot ceiling to the loft building with a ten- or eleven-foot ceiling is obvious.
The wicker baskets in the aisles were piled high with finished goods of silk, lawn, and lace with the fancy embroidery of spring and summer shirtwaists then so much in fashion. In the work space on the table between the machines the cards of lace and the cut piece goods were stacked. The shop turned out 900 dozen muslin and lingerie waists in a week. The shelves were loaded with rolls of lawn and muslin as well as wicker baskets filled with bundles of finished and cut goods waiting for the next step in production.
On the cutting tables stretches of lawn—175 to 180 layers of lawn alternating with layers of tissue paper in each stretch—were laid out ready for Sunday’s work. The great bins beneath the cutting tables were filled with rags ;md waste. Louis Levy, the rag buyer, hadn’t been around to pick up the lint, remnants, and rags since January 15.
The cutters, inveterate smokers, perhaps lingered for a last puff on a cigarette carefully cupped in the palm of the hand before leaving for the day. From habit, they blew the smoke under their coats, thoroughly schooled in the practice which enabled the boss to overlook the obvious violation of fire regulations. “You would get little work out of your men if you would prevent it,” the dress manufacturer on the floor below the Triangle Waist Company is reported as saying after the fire.
How the fire actually started was never satisfactorily explained: “A cutter let a match fall on some old waste”; “Some one stepped on a match on the floor”; “A man was (leaning his coat with gasoline.”
These fragments of testimony were offered by survivors later. Fire Chief Edward F. Croker believed that the spark ol a cigarette ignited gasoline used for heating pressing irons on the eighth floor. The first notice of the fire was from one of the girls, Eva Harris, who ran to tell the factory manager, Samuel Bernstein, that two boys were putting out a fire over between two tables on the Greene Street side.
“It was in a rag bin,” Bernstein later testified, “and it jumped right up.” He grabbed two water pails and with the help of Max Rother, a tailor, attempted to douse the blaze. “But it was like there was kerosene in the water; it just seemed to spread it.”
Frank Formalek, an elevator man, left his car to help. Louis Senderman and a boy, Leo Tador, tried to use the standpipe hose in the hall but they couldn’t turn the valve-wheel. “It was rusted and the hose, wherever it was folded, was rotten.”
At 4:35 P.M. , Diana Lipschitz, bookkeeper on the eighth door, sent in an alarm and telautographed a message to the main offices on the ninth floor: “The place is on fire: Run for your lives.” The bookkeeper on the tenth floor, Mary Alter, turned to some girls standing nearby and said, “Diana is stringing me; what does she take me for?”
Meanwhile, Bernstein yelled to Louis Brown, a machinist, to get the girls out; nothing cotdd be done to stop the fire.
On the street, one hundred feet below, the first sign of the impending disaster was a bare wisp of smoke curling out of an eighth-story window in the Asch building. Among the onlookers on Washington Place whose attention was caught by the faint trace of smoke was James Cooper, a World reporter. “For fully a minute,” Cooper wrote in the Sunday morning edition of his paper, “the spectators seemed in doubt as to whether the smoke meant fire or was simply some unusual smoke that might come from a machine used for manufacturing purposes.
“Within another minute the entire eighth floor was spouting little jets of (lame from the windows as if the floor was surrounded by a row of incandescent lights,” Cooper wrote. The fire quickly attracted a small crowd. Someone remarked to Cooper that it was “mighty hard work” to burn a fireproof building and how lucky it was that “it’s Saturday afternoon. It looks as if everyone was out of the place.”
The growing crowd of spectators had observed no signs of life according to Cooper’s account when “suddenly something that looked like a bale of dark dress goods was hurled from an eighth-story window. ‘Somebody’s in there all right,’ exclaimed a spectator. ‘He’s trying to save the best cloth.’” Then, “Another seeming bundle of cloth came hurtling through the same window, but this time a breeze tossed open the cloth and from the crowd of 500 persons came a cry of horror. The breeze disclosed the form of a girl shooting down to instant death.”
“We were there three minutes after the alarm,” Fire Captain Howard C. Ruch of Engine Company 18 testified, “and it took us four minutes to make our connections and ‘stretch in.’ By that time people were jumping from the windows so fast that before we could turn the water on our line was buried under bodies and we had to lift them off before we could get to work.”
Since the Asch building was fireproof the flames could not eat into the walls nor burn through the floors. Feeding upon the great piles of flimsy material and given a booster shot by two barrels of oil on the eighth floor, the flames curved about in a hungry vortex.
The fire spread to the top two floors by a process called “lapping in” by firemen. Flames reaching out of the eighth-floor windows were sucked in through the ninth- and tenth-floor windows. Along the windows on the ninth floor a multitude of paper patterns hung. The doors on the ninth and tenth floors to the Greene Street stairs were open as was the door to the roof. The effect on the fire was like opening the damper and the pipe draft in an old wood-burning stove already fired with dry kindling.
Within the eighth floor, the flaming whirlpool forced some 225 girls and men into panicky flight. Since the fire began in the cutting room, the Greene Street exits—the freight elevators and stairs normally used by the employees—were blocked by a sheet of flame. Most of the girls bolted in terror for the Washington Place door. This door was locked. Harris and Blanck, as a matter of policy, kept the Washington Place doors on the eighth and ninth floors locked, compelling the girls to leave the shop by a narrow passageway leading to the Greene Street freight elevators, where handbags were examined to see that no one stole a bit of lace or a piece of silk.
Louis Brown, the machinist, later denied that the door was locked. However, he did testify that he had “wanted to see if it was locked. I tried to turn the key, and it would not turn.” The door was forced open and the girls rushed out.
One hundred and twenty-five frightened creatures fought to escape by a 33-inch-wide winding stairway. There were no lights, according to the girls and the firemen, and they had to grope their way down. A girl fainted or i’ell on the seventh floor, others fell on top of her, jamming the stairs behind them. Most of the girls were still in the room with the fire blistering their backs as they clawed in terror those in front of them.
One survivor, Rose Bernstein, testified: “A girl’s clothes caught on fire, and a man’s, and they jumped, f seen one girl run to a window, and when I got down to the sidewalk, I had to step over her.”
A policeman, Median, who had run np the stairs, managed, with the help of Brown, to break the jam of girls on the seventh floor. Every girl who managed to get into the stairway from the eighth floor got out alive.
The boy Tador and an operator, Starkofsky, ran for the eighth-floor fire escape once it became apparent that further fire fighting was futile. Some ten or twelve girls and men followed them in their flight out the two windows leading to the fire escape. The escape was an eighteen-inch-wide ladderway and a series of landings ending five feet from the ground in a closed court. The Asch building was unusual in this respect; under the law, loft buildings were not required to have fire escapes.
Tador, leading the way, made it to the bottom in what amounted to a series of falls, the last of which broke the skylight in the court. He got out of the building through the cellar. One man let himself down from landing to landing by tying together two sections of machine belting. The rest managed to escape through the windows on the sixth floor where they were found later, bleeding and moaning.
How those fortunate enough to make it to the sixth floor managed can only be guessed. The girls had to cross a little gangway across the window to reach the platform opening where ladder-like stairs led to the next floor. At this point two heavy sheet-iron shutters blocked the fire escape. The shutters opened outward, one of them to be secured with a heavy iron hook; one of these hooks had fallen through the iron treads on the eighth Iloor escape-way and had so firmly jammed that the escapees from the ninth floor could go no farther.
The crowd jamming the fire escape on the eighth floor bent the railings out of shape. The Fire Commission later estimated that the occupants of the upper three floors of the Asch building could not have gotten clown by the fire escape in less than three hours. As it was, this “good and sufficient means of egress” saved fewer than twenty lives. The closed court was soon choked with smoke and flames from the fire.
So far as anyone knows the tenth floor got the alarm before the ill-fated ninth. Nearly everyone on the top iloor escaped through the Gieene Street stairway to the roof.
Twenty New York University law students, attending a lecture by Professor Frank A. Sommer, came to the aid of the Triangle employees who had managed to reach the roof. The university root was some ten feet higher than that of the Asch building. Luckily, however, the students found two ladders, which were lowered to the girls. Even this aid came too late for some, who mad with terror and pain, dresses and hair aflame, leaped into the fire and smoke-filled air shaft containing the useless fire escape.
On the ninth floor most of the girls were still in the dressing room when the first flames lapped into the open windows from the floor below. Annie UlIo, 26-year-old forelady on the ninth floor, told a World reporter: “At about quarter to five I went to the coat room and got my things. Just as I started to put on my coat I heard the cry Tire/ I dashed into the room already dense with smoke through which curled flame. With a rush I was at the Washington Place stairway, but the door was locked.”
“We run first to the elevator,” Natie Weiner explained, “and he was not up. We knocked on the door and he didn’t come.” Then the girls turned to the Washington Place door. “It was locked and there was no key there. … I tried to break it open, and I couldn’t. … There was a woman forty years old there who was burned—Mary Herman—and Bessie Bischofsky, and there was others, and they was next to me and with me at the door; and I said to the woman, ‘You try. You may be stronger.’ She said, ‘I can’t.’ So then I said, ‘Let us all go at it.’ And we did.”
But they never got the door open. The lock, with the bolt shot, was found after the fire in the debris just inside the burnt-out doorway.
The passageway to the Greene Street door on the ninth floor was only twenty inches wide. The door opened inward. Men and girls tore the clothes off one another in the effort to get through. One hundred and fifty made it into the narrow stairway and three quarters of them got down to the street alive.
However, the exodus through the Greene Street doorway was much too slow. “The girls behind us were screaming and crying,” Tessa Benani testified. “Several of them, as the flames crept up closer, ran into the smoke, and we heard them scream as the flames caught their clothes. One little girl who worked at the machine opposite me cried out in Italian, ‘Goodbye, goodbye!’ I have not seen her since. My cousin Josey staggered through the mob and made direct for the flames. The next I heard of her was when they brought her body home from the morgue. She had jumped.”
Fifty-eight girls crawled into a little corridor or cloak room where they were found later, burned to death, their faces raised toward a little window.
Natie Weiner broke the glass in the door of one of the Washington Street elevators and opened it. She tried to rescue her sister Rosie, who died a victim of the fire. “Rosie collapsed from fear,” Natie said. “I tried to drag her to the stairway. Another girl—I don’t know who she was—tried to help me. The flames swept about us and I was literally brushed to the open door. I thought Rosie was too. I slid down the cable of the elevator nine floors. My hands were torn and burned.”
The Washington Street passenger elevators ran until one operator fainted and the other could no longer continue as girls jumping in the elevator well jammed the operation of the car.
On the Greene Street side of the Asch building, the freight elevators “ran until they wouldn’t run.” “We were putting in the switch cables till they were overrun with water,” Thomas Horton, the Negro porter recalls. “They stuck. The circuit-breakers were blowing out.”
As Horton toiled grimly in the basement to keep the motors going, the elevator operators opened their doors at random in the blinding smoke, making desperate guesses as to floor openings. Fire streamed into the shafts, flame bit at the cables, and the girls jumping in suicidal fright jammed the operation of the cars. Nineteen bodies were found later wedged between the car and shaft in one of the Greene Street freight elevator wells.
The street was a scene of indescribable horror. The building itself was indestructible. New York University students now attend classes on the very same floors where so many died. The smoke of the fire scarcely blackened the sky; no big, definite clouds arose to blot out the sunshine and springtime brightness of the blue above. Now and then a thin tongue of flame licked around a window sash.
Fire nets were of little help. Spectators joined with firemen and policemen to hold the huge nets. The girls, in some instances, jumped three together as if seeking courage in numbers. Fire Captain Ruch figured that each body struck the sidewalk with a force of 11,040 pounds. “The bodies didn’t break through the nets; they just carried them to the sidewalk. The force was so great it took the men off their feet; they turned somersaults over onto the bodies.”
Public reaction to the Triangle tragedy was swift. Hardly had the grim process of identification of the dead begun in the morgue when members of the Women’s Trade Union League were out visiting families of the victims in the name of the Shirt Waist Makers Union in order to ascertain their immediate relief needs. On the first day of a fund appeal for victims’ families, $14,500 came in headed by a $5,000 contribution from Andrew Carnegie. Contributions to the Red Cross totaled §103,000, and additional funds raised by the Women’s Trade Union League, the unions, the Forward Association, and the Workmen’s Circle brought the sum raised to a total of $120,000.
The fire was a personal and financial tragedy to the families of the victims in a way scarcely comprehensible to the social-security-protected world of today. Fourteen engagement rings were found on one floor of the Triangle factory—mute testimony of the loss suffered by many of the young. Most of the workers were immigrants—Italians or Russian Jews. Some were the main support of parents still in the old country.
The Triangle tragedy roused the entire East Side to feverish agitation. The grief, anger, and sorrow welling up from slum blocks south of Fourteenth Street and east of Third Avenue came to a climax on April 5. “The skies wept,” the World reporter wrote for the next day’s editions, “as 80,000 working men and women marched in procession here yesterday to prove they mourn the fate of … their fellows who perished in the fire at No. 23 Washington Place, March 25 last.”
In silence they marched up Fifth Avenue between silent crowds numbering over 250,000. Street mud oozed through the thin shoes of the young girls and older women who made up the majority of the funeral procession. Wearing arm bands reading, “We mourn our loss,” they marched for four hours in the drenching rain to the beat of muffled drums behind an empty hearse drawn by six white horses covered in black.
The fire burned away a curtain covering the appalling state of affairs existing in the factory district of New York City and elsewhere. Facts gathered by the Citizens’ Committee of Safety in describing 80 buildings with some 40,000 workers revealed that 22 had no fire escapes, 29 had obstructed fire escapes, only 8 had more than one fire escape; 35 had nailed or barred windows; 26 had locked doors, 50 had doors that opened inward; 51 had wooden and 36 dark stairways.
“Won’t it ever be safe to earn our bread?” demanded the mother of a fourteen-year-old victim. The answer may be found in the impact of the Triangle fire and of the Factory Investigation Commission appointed by the New York State legislature as a result of the tragedy on the movement for social reform. Many predecessors of reform and New Deal legislation—factory laws, workmen’s compensation, the protection of women and children in industry, minimum wage legislation—are to be found within the dusty pages of the commission report. As a result of the work of the commission a new Industrial Code, which became a model for similar legislation in other states, was adopted by the New York legislature.
The fire acted as a catalyst: Tammany learned that there were votes to be had from support of social reform; the unions and urban working people found out how much could be gained through legislation and how best to use their votes to secure reform measures; the Progressive reformer and social worker discovered that progress could be made through cooperation with the urban political machines. And men like Alfred E. Smith, Robert F. Wagner, Sr., and Franklin D. Roosevelt learned how to coalesce these groups into an effective political force.
One of the last girls to jump from the Triangle Waist Company window ledges was Sallie Weintraub. “For a minute,” an eyewitness said, “she held her hands rigid, her face upward, looking toward the sky.” The window in which she stood was etched in little tongues of flames. One licked out, touched her dress, and it began to burn. But, before she jumped, “she began to raise her arms and make gestures as if she were addressing a crowd above her.”
What she was saying, we will never know. But her mute appeal, to wrest right from wrong, has not gone unanswered.